In recent decades, hū you (忽悠), or bamboozling somebody, has almost been elevated to an art in China. Some Chinese seem to derive a kind of pride from cunningly cheating someone, often for economic gain. Some have even made this into a business. Meanwhile, it has led to a general mistrust in Chinese society. One of the forms of hū you that I encountered during my time in China was the phenomenon of the ‘face job’ or ‘rent-a-laowai’ (‘laowai’ is one of the Chinese words for foreigner).
In China, a lot revolves around prestige, status and recognition or miànzi (面子). Ten years ago, having foreign customers or employees gave a business prestige, especially outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
While working for an NGO in Xi’an, I often wondered whether the organization was employing me and my fellow volunteer to gain prestige (our volunteer allowances were actually paid by an international volunteering organisation). The NGO rarely gave us any projects related to our education and experience, in fact, they rarely gave us anything to do at all. But they knew how to use us for press events.
On Xi’an’s Car Free Day, I was unexpectedly told that I would be interviewed by the local television later that day. Hastily, I immersed myself in the history of Car Free Day in China and wrote a short speech about the importance of such an event. Eventually, this would be mostly cut from the broadcast and only my answers to silly questions like ‘do own a car in your country?’ we used.
Another incident involved the opening of a clinic to which I was invited. I had brought an interpreter with me and on arrival was treated like a VIP, tagged as such by a red flower pinned on my chest, and was led to the second row of seats, while being photographed. My interpreter was asked to take a seat somewhere in the back.
I had to listen to over half an hour of speeches by government officials. Having only just arrived in China I didn’t understand a word of what was said. Afterwards I was dragged to a festive lunch, during which the baijiu (a nasty traditional Chinese liquor containing more than 50% alcohol) flowed freely. I found this ironic since the clinic mainly treated alcoholics.
At a fundraising event, me and my fellow volunteer were invited to make dumplings at a shelter for mentally challenged youth. Once there, there was again plenty of press present who wanted to capture the two laowai on film and did not seem to have much interest in the young people the event organised for. Something similar happened when we were invited to attend a tree planting event and were again besieged by photographers.
But even worse was experiencing the phenomenon of positive discrimination. In the only bar in our district in Xi’an, where we regularly went for a beer, you could simply walk in as a foreigner. But Chinese local needed an expensive membership card. Apparently, the average Chinese thought that those foreigners were wealthy, and their presence gave the bar miànzi. At another Chinese bar foreigners even got a discount on drinks, while locals paid full price.
Hanging out and looking happy
This celebrity treatment, just because you were a foreigner, was something that always bothered me. I quickly started getting really annoyed by having to show up just because I had a white face. It even felt like an insult to me. I had given up a well-paid job and had come to China to contribute to social development with my expertise only to end up being used as some sort of stage prop. But not everyone shared that opinion. In fact, hiring a laowai proved to be big business in China.
Imagine having a Chinese family and visiting some schools to see which one would be best for your child. At one of the schools, you see a foreign teacher and you think: ‘Wow, if this school has foreign teachers, it must be a particularly good school!’ Without further hesitation, you enrol your kid at this school. But what you don’t know, is that that laowai has been hired for a ‘face job’. He responded to a message on an internet forum:
“Foreign man wanted – no teaching required, just hang out and look happy. Pretend you work there. Any colour is okay, as long as you don’t look Chinese. A small kindergarten just outside Xi’an has its official opening on Oct. 22 (Saturday) and they want a western man to pretend to work there. They’ll pick you up in a car, drive you to the school, you hang out and look happy and then they’ll take you back. That’s all.” The unscrupulous foreigner would be paid 300 RMB (about $45). That was about three days’ wages for a local resident.
Or imagine the following: you are part of a government committee selecting one of three project developers for a multi-billion-dollar project. All three candidates arrive to give a presentation and one of them brings along a laowai, apparently a renowned architect, who has contributed to the project design. You are impressed by their collaboration with this international expert, and you decide to give them the project, unaware that this foreigner has zero knowledge of architecture. He is hired by the project developer and receives 3,000 RMB ($470) for 5 minutes of bullshitting. Seems unlikely? Well, I personally knew the fake architect. I wouldn’t even trust him to build a garden shed.
I regularly come across these kinds of requests on the internet. Take for instance an offer for ‘Caucasian models ‘ to be flown to the other side of China and hang out there for two days at the opening of a luxury apartment complex. 1,500 RMB per day ($235), hotel and meals included. “All you have to do is sit down somewhere and pretend you’re a customer or someone who lives there. Professional experience in modelling is not necessary, we are only looking for beautiful, tall, western women.”
Online, face job companies invited you to register with them as a foreigner. And they didn’t beat around the bush:
“We all know that in China, it sometimes gives you prestige when you come from another country. If you are a foreigner, we would be happy to add you to our database and look for part-time “face jobs” for you. A face job is a job that requires absolutely no skills other than being friendly and being a ‘laowai’. Every now and then, companies want a foreign face to come to a meeting or gathering or to an official dinner or lunch, just smile at customers and shake hands. There are also options for pretty girls and for men who look good in a suit. This is a great way to make money in the evenings or travel around China and get all your expenses paid while also earning over 1,000 RMB per day.”
Besides “face job” and “rent-a-laowai”, this type of practice is also known as “white-guy-window-dressing” or “white-guy-in-a-tie”. Google ‘rent-a-laowai’ and you will find dozens of similar stories.
It might be understandable that some foreigners take part in this kind of practice because it is easy money. I’ve heard some of them say ‘oh well, if they want to cheat each other and I can earn some nice extra cash that’s not my problem’. What’s more, many of those rented laowai often didn’t have the best paying jobs themselves. Many of them had been forced to revert to teaching English in some Chinese lower-tier city because of dire circumstances back home. But it is deplorable how some Chinese businesses had to acquire customers, win projects or gain prestige through this kind of deception of their fellow countrymen.
Over recent years China has become more patriotic, nationalistic and the government has fired up pride for the Chinese culture. According to some this has resulted in a decline of the ‘rent-a-laowai’ business. When checking with a friend in Xi’an he informed me: ’Back [in 2012] it was common for weddings and store openings to get foreigners to perform. Any kind of show as long as they were foreigners. Nowadays all I see is people looking for foreigners for movie shoots or maybe some ads.’ But as a screenshot from a WeChat group shows, they certainly hadn’t fully disappeared.
Want to know more about the face job industry in China? I can recommend the graphic novel White Faced Lies (2022) and the documentary Dream Empire (2016). A shorter version of Dream Empire is also available as the Al Jazeera documentary Chinese Dreamland, while there’s also a 7 minute video of the face job aspect of the documentary. All versions have a lot of different footage and are worth watching. This interview with filmmaker Borenstein is interesting as well.
Dream Empire/Chinese Dreamland
In this documentary, filmmaker David Borenstein follows the rise and fall of a face-job agency in Chongqing during the real estate building boom in 2012. Yana, a 24-year-old rural migrant, goes around bars recruiting laowai to perform ‘white monkey gigs’ for her project developer clients. Having an international community suggests that a city is doing well economically and shows a lot of promise for the future. Many real estate buyers in Chongqing had never seen a real foreigner and their presence made things ‘new and exciting’.
Yana drives around with busloads full of foreigners; ‘students, drifters, ex-cons, backpackers that stayed too long, really anybody interested in quick cash’. It required no real skills, which is fortunate since Yana quickly realizes that in Chongqing talented foreigners are hard to find.
Yana sells her services by claiming that renting her laowai for a music and dance show will help raise the value of properties. Borenstein, who originally went to Chongqing to research urbanisation, ends up with Yana, becoming the ‘celebrated clarinet player Dave Borenzio’. At one point he does three gigs per week, each earning twice his monthly rent.
Although on one level the film is about China’s real estate building boom, it also shows the role that face jobs played in it. We see examples like Africans performing a ‘primitive dance’, singers that can’t actually sing and bands of random musicians that have never played together before. No musical or dancing talent at all? Then you can do standing gigs in a costume. Hanging around and looking happy. Or pretend to be a former candidate of America’s Next Top Model and get on stage in your underwear holding luxury handbags. If your budget is limited, Yana would offer you black foreigners at a discounted price, like a man from Congo presented as famous French singer ‘Prince’.
In the beginning Yana mainly deals with foreign musicians and dancers. Their only crime is pretending to be more talented than they actually are. But when business starts getting tough for Yana, the foreigners are asked to pretend being scientists, doctors, athletes, professors, residents of apartments and engineers who designed the buildings. This is where it moves into the territory of White-Faced Lies.
White Faced Lies
Recently, filmmakers Eric Flanagan and Sam Voutas teamed up with illustrator Tomothy McEvenue for the release of a graphic novel named White Faced Lies. The book depicts the story of a middle-aged foreigner in China who earns a living by doing face jobs, ranging from modelling in adverts to pretending to be hotel critic, doctor, safety inspector and foreign CEO of a company. Here we are dealing with intentional deceit, sometimes with horrible consequences.
The writers originally intended this to be a movie script, but it ended up being a graphic novel instead. I can imagine the sensitive topic being a barrier to filming the script in China. The cinematographic style was however maintained in the drawings, with many frames showing subtle changes in facial expressions but not much else happening.
I haven’t really read any graphic novels since I was a teenager, but the subject matter triggered my interest. I wasn’t disappointed. Although the cartoon style is a bit sketchy and mostly uses pastel colours, the scenic drawings often have amazing eye for detail showing true familiarity with life in China. And for those that are living there or have lived there there’s also a few in-jokes and subtle references to catch.
Not only the depiction of different regions and scenes in China is done very well. The story is true to life as the scams and total lack of integrity that are displayed by almost every character are very recognisable to those who have seen the workings of this questionable industry. It’s no surprise the two filmmakers claim to have first-hand experience. Overall, a well-done product about a shady convergence of western and Chinese culture.